|Spire of Metropolitan Cathedral, Casco Viejo, Panama|
“Increasingly, Western culture embraces confusion as a virtue and decries certainty as a sin. Those who are confused about sexuality and identity are viewed as heroes. Those who are confused about morality are progressive pioneers. Those who are confused about spirituality are praised as tolerant. Conversely, those who express certainty about any of these issues are seen as bigoted, oppressive, arrogant, or intolerant.” (Abdu Murray in an interview with Bible Gateway)
I think most of us understand what Murray is talking about in the interview on his new book, (Saving Truth: Finding Meaning & Clarity in a Post-Truth World (Zondervan, 2018). Unfortunately, he begins the interview with a few logical errors that put the entire thesis in question. Broad generalizations like “Those who are confused about morality are [seen as] progressive pioneers,” makes both the generalization error as well as depending on a false dichotomy; throughout the interview as in the opening statement, certainty is paired with confusion as opposites. To begin by saying that, for instance, persons who reject Christian conventional wisdom on gender and sexuality are confused and then attributing that confusion to Western Culture is to play fast and loose with the very truth Murray sets out to defend.
Many of us are living through this false dichotomy even as we read apologists on both sides. A political comparison can probably be found to be analogous: for a socialist to hold up Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto as truth and to judge all divergent thought on the subjects it addresses as confusion, would be patently absurd. And yet, The Communist Manifesto contributes to the search for social and economic structures that work—but only if thinkers following Karl Marx work at critiquing his work in the light of new knowledge and experience. (This is not to equate Karl Marx with God; it’s meant to make the point that questioning the interpretation of any body of knowledge is not a consequence of confusion, but is in reality an ongoing search for beneficial meaning.)
When asked for his definition of truth, Murray says:
“Simply put, truth is that which conforms to reality. There are historical truths, moral truths, scientific truths, and spiritual truths. And all of them must be coherent and cohesive. In other words, if our worldview is true, what we learn from history and science ought to complement each other. Spiritual truths also ought to complement other areas of truth. But fundamentally, truth is objective. By that I mean that it doesn’t depend on human opinion.”
Taken literally, then, nothing is true unless it conforms to or complements truths discovered in other areas. But since truth is objective, all science, history, spiritual truth has to be chiseled and sanded down until it conforms to the one, objective truth. The internal contradiction in Murray’s definition is startling coming from a respected theologian and teacher.
But let’s bring this down to earth. What he’s saying is in defense of his and his colleagues’ insistence that the Bible is pure, objective truth, and that their method of reading it has unlocked this objective, incontrovertible truth. We see this viewpoint as defense for positions surrounding the big moral questions of the day: abortion, gender equality, same-sex marriage, divorce, medical assistance in dying, the death penalty, etc., etc. By Murray’s definition, truth conforms to reality, but in this definition also lies the seed of its confusion: in holding to a position of objective truth as Murray sees it, denying reality becomes absolutely necessary.
An example: We’re all familiar with Paul’s advice about women speaking in the assembly of Christians. Today’s reality tells us that there’s no grounds biologically, socially to consider women less competent in intellectual or spiritual teaching than men. To follow through on Murray’s definition, though, Paul is stating an objective truth and our thinking on this must conform to that objective truth.
I’m told that a local pastor is still insisting that women in his congregation be bound by this absolute truth, but even in most conservative assemblies, truth has been broadened to conform to reality in this regard.
Picking and choosing has become an art form; some would call that a state of confusion.
But I may be interpreted here as denying the existence of absolute truth. If it’s reasonable to assume such an entity, seems to me it would have to do with the repeated admonitions in scriptures that approaching the New Jerusalem, establishing the heavenly kingdom of peace and joy can only come through the practice of unconditional, sacrificial love. I find very few moral arguments that can’t be answered with Christ’s summation of all law and prophecy, namely to love with all your being the creator and creation, and to love your neighbour according to the measure of love you long for for yourself.
Reverence first, empathy second. By these the kingdom comes . . . and by no other means.